Mysteries of Nature: Maya Da-Rin Discusses "The Fever"

The Brazilian filmmaker discusses her new film and declarations towards the indigenous people made by Brazil’s far-right government.
Gustavo Beck

The Fever

The Brazilian filmmaker Maya Da-Rin has garnered attention for her documentaries Terras (2009) and Margem (2007), both shot in the Amazon region. Now, she is back with her fiction debut, an enigmatic film capable to explore the mystery of the Amazon forrest to create a dream-like atmosphere that impregnates the viewer like a burning fever. In it, Justino (Regis Myrupu), a middle-aged member of the indigenous Desana people in Brazil, begins to come down with a vague illness while working as a security guard at a shipyard in Manaus. His daughter Vanessa (Rosa Peixoto) is preparing to leave her father to study medicine in Brasilia. The two are caught between their family's past in the Amazon and their present in an urbanizing Amazon.

We interviewed the writer-director about her new feature The Fever, which had its world premiere in the International Competition at the 72nd Locarno Film Festival.

NOTEBOOK: What is your inspiration—your point of departure—and how do you develop initial ideas into a story with characters? 

MAYA DA-RIN: I usually begin with a physical place and the people I meet there give rise to the characters and the relationships between them. But in The Fever the initial idea was born while I was shooting two documentary films in Amazonia during which I met various Indian families who had left their villages in the forest and moved to the city. I wound up getting close to one of these families and the relationship I established with them sparked my script. I therefore decided to shoot the movie in Manaus, a city that I had previously visited a couple of times and which had always intrigued me as being an industrial hub located in the middle of the forest.

Manaus is imbued with many of Brazil’s contradictions. In the late 60s, during the military dictatorship, developmental policies aimed at occupying the region gave rise to Manaus’s Free Economic Zone. Over a million migrants arrived from around Brazil to work in the Industrial Hub’s new factories, including many native people who left their traditional homes in the forest in search of salaries, health treatment and education. But the city had no urban planning nor social projects to better receive the newly arrived populace and consequently urban sprawl expanded into forest areas. If Manaus at the time was home to 200 thousand inhabitants, it today numbers over 2 million. And today 80% of the population in the Brazilian Amazonia live in cities nowadays.

In a way, my starting point is based on true stories. They interested me mainly because they were stories about people who I could come upon in my daily activities. We are all aware of how cinema has the propensity to exoticize indigenous peoples and tends to see them through a romantic and positivistic prism, as remnants of that which western cultures were in the past and not as contemporary complex societies. But the project’s initial script was much different from what it turned out to be. It took six years of work and innumerous trips to Manaus before we were able to begin shooting.

NOTEBOOK: The locations are crucial to the story and evoke a certain confrontation between two different worlds. What is your selection process like and how they impact your writing?

DA-RIN: Picking locations and writing screenplays walk hand-in-hand for me. In The Fever, the screenplay was written during the time I and one of my co-writers, Miguel Seabra Lopes, spent in Manaus. During our research we visited a few indigenous communities on the outskirts of the city while accompanying the daily grind of port employees and nurses working in public health clinics. We experienced situations that were later incorporated into the screenplay as well as were able to imagine many others that that would not even have occurred to us without these experiences. I think that this is a method that I inherited from my previous work with documentaries, and that translates much of my interest in filmmaking: being close to people and listening to what they have to say.

It is very difficult for me to imagine a film while sitting in front of a computer.

I was interested in working with Justino’s relations with the places he frequents and the contrasts between them. In the forest, for example, Justino can be seen always at the same level of the vegetation, surround and camouflaged by it. It is a place in which the distinction between figure and backdrop is very tenuous. But then, at the port, we have immense concrete patios filled with containers. Besides the difference in scale between the people and machines, there is a clear and distinct separation between the figures and the backdrop, between the people and their environment. It is a naked space, bare, where Justino seems to be much more vulnerable. On the other hand, the corridors between the piles of containers, allude to the labyrinthine sensations we experience when walking through the forest. And Justino’s movements as he goes his rounds as guard often make me think in those of a hunter prowling about in the forest. I endeavored to use these relations in the images, mise-en-scène, and editing. Despite being subtle associations they accumulate throughout the film and are important in constructing the character.  

NOTEBOOK: Maybe the film can be understood as a modern fable. A story of resistance that opens a window to a dream like mystery. For me, it is very interesting to have medicine in the center of the story. Could you please elaborate on this decision?

DA-RIN: The concept of illness among the Ameridian people is a complex one and often involves not only the sick person’s physical body but their relations with other forest beings (animals, spirits and other humans). Treatment should take these aspects into account when diagnosing and finding a cure for their disease. Something that is usually done by the shaman, or kumu, as they are called by the native people living in the region of the Upper Rio Negro; someone able to deal with the multiple alterities acting on the subject, to reestablish equilibrium. A work of translating and mediating between the animals, spirits and humans. This is why the shamans are often referred to as being diplomats.

I believe our society today is ill because it is unable to relate to alterity nor support differences. We are the only species that exterminates itself, something that has gone on for centuries of colonization and continues still today when we close our eyes to the hardships suffered by immigrants and refugees or when acting with indifference to global warming and deforestation.    

In the Tukano language, there is no word for nature nor is there any distinction between humanity and the environment. Mankind is part of the world. And not unlike humans, all creatures that act intentionally are considered as being “people.” Or, in other words, they are individuals and not objects. This totally changes the way relationships are carried out in society. A very different premise from our own which has always denied or been suspicious of the humanity of others. Not unlike when Europeans first arrived in the Americas and Africa thinking that indigenous peoples and blacks were not possessed of a soul in order to take them as slaves, or as seen in the raising of livestock in subhuman conditions to later be slaughtered on a large scale, or even when stripping the forests of their natural resources while believing we are acting in benefit of our species without taking all the other species living there into consideration. We are sick because we can only perceive ourselves. As stated by Davi Kopenawa, an important Yanomami wise man and leader, white people sleep a lot but can only dream of themselves. A civilization that burns down forests and the creatures living in them will soon self-implode. 

NOTEBOOK: Many plot elements remain somewhat hidden. Instead, you focus on the atmosphere that springs from the characters’ encounters. Could you please elaborate on your understanding of creating mood in cinema?

DA-RIN: I think that when we reveal too much, we wind up by not allowing spectators see anything. For me, it was clear that I couldn’t reveal more than what the character knew about himself. And Justino is going through a very confusing moment. His wife has died, his daughter is leaving home and, suddenly, he finds himself having to deal with feelings that had been dormant up until then. It was important for me to make spectators feel this same kind of perturbation and emptiness.

The atmosphere has an important role in this sense, as it often translates the character’s soul. Beside Justino’s physical symptoms, I asked myself how his fever could be slowly spread throughout the film. Justino is pursued through the forest by an invisible creature and I had to find a way to incorporate this being. I think that the main elements in creating an atmosphere in films are the light, sound and rhythm. The Fever is a nocturnal movie, shot with low lights and dense blackness. The choice of locations had an important role as well, with the deserted industrial cityscapes that haunt our leading character.

While doing sound research, sound director Felippe Mussel noticed the similarity in the forest’s high pitched insects with certain machinery used in the port area. We consequently became more attentive to ambience sounds and, while editing the sound, we endeavored to create compositions using the sounds coming from the port and forest up until the moment we were unable to identify their origin. They are repetitive sounds that lead to a hypnotic state of mind resulting in the film’s feverish dimension.

NOTEBOOK: I am particularly interested on the orality of the stories told by the characters. Could you please elaborate on this narrative choice?

DA-RIN: During rehearsals we would tell many stories. A way in which we could come to know each other better, to activate our memories and the idea that we had all come together to tell a story. This is cinema’s realm, a place where stories are told. And many cultures in the Americas are oral ones, in which knowledge is passed down through time orally, from one generation to the next.

I believe that to tell a story one must know how to listen. When a young Kumu Indian learns how to become a medicine man, he has to memorize chants that protect and heal, chants that consist of a long list of animal and plant names as well as substances related to each specific illness. I remember Reginaldo telling me about the nights he spent awake listening to his father, an important Desana shaman, telling him stories of the origin of his people. The story Justino tells his grandson during dinner was told us by Reginaldo during rehearsals.  

The music used to accompany final credits was created by Rosa [ Peixoto] based on the traditional music coming from indigenous people living in the Upper Rio Negro region called Ahãbeaki or Hãde Hãde. It consists of melodic improvisations sung by the women as they work or participate in rituals. The verses are always improvised but use the same meter passed down to them by the older women. In one of our rehearsals, we asked the actresses if they would like to sing a Hãde Hãde and Rosa presented us with this one. Despite having arrived in Manaus at a tender age, she learned these melodies from her mother.

Memory plays a fundamental role for the peoples of the Upper Rio Negro and is constantly being exercised in their daily activities. As all knowledge is passed down orally, one must know how to listen, something much different from memorizing per se. During rehearsals, one of us would begin by telling a story after which I would ask somebody else to tell the same story in his/her own words. Most of the time the core of the story would remain the same while details varied and the mental images formed by the listeners were different. For something like this to work everyone had to pay a lot of attention. I think that acting is most of all knowing how to listen to others. And a good narrator is someone who makes others see beyond mere words.  

NOTEBOOK: How was the casting process like for this film? How did you work with your actors from early rehearsals to the actual shooting of the scenes?

DA-RIN: Casting was a long process that lasted over a year and counted on the collaboration of a team of young filmmakers and actors from Manaus. In the process we visited the native communities living on the outskirts of Manaus and São Gabriel da Cachoeira, extending invitations to those interested in participating in the film to come talk with us. I interviewed more than 500 people to finally find the actors who played in the film. Reginaldo caught my eye because of his strong presence and the precision of his movements. Rosa in turn had something hidden, like a secret, something I was looking for in Vanessa’s role. Both of them had previously acted in minor roles and this was the first time they participated in a more intense filming process.

But before settling on the family nucleus, we called a few people to participate in a three-day immersion in which we could delve into the project deeper and try out a few scenes from the screenplay. After that we began rehearsing for two months. At first I wasn’t sure how the scenes would be developed. I had a few ideas and the urge to experiment with certain things, but later answers were provided by the cast itself. Amanda Gabriel, my partner in preparing the cast, and I always began with improvisations after which we slowly constructed the scenes along with the actors. We could spend days working on one specific scene and we always talked a lot about our impressions. We thus got to know each other better and were able to bring the movie we all wanted to shoot to the surface.

Filming itself was a continuation of this process. We would usually begin rehearsing while shooting and would repeat the same shot over and over again, until exhaustion led the actors into a zone of less control and more surrender. As we repeated the scenes the intentions both I and the actors had brought into the process became more diluted and opened space for a more active presence of spirit. Merely being there, opening a door, drinking coffee, flagging down a bus, talking, or sleeping. The repetitions brought with them a more just tone into the film in contrast to the freshness of the first take. I would only discover this however after a few weeks of actual shooting.  

NOTEBOOK: Why was it important for you to have the film spoken in an indigenous language and how was for you to relate to this language? 

DA-RIN: I think languages aren’t tools through which we communicate ideas; they make up a system of thought. We think differently in each language and our body language changes in function of the language we speak. In Brazilian territory over 150 languages exist, all belonging to 39 different linguistic families, and the great majority of the population has never heard any of them. There are hundreds of accents, grammar systems, ways of conceiving and explaining the world around us totally ignored by non-indigenous Brazilians.  

The people hailing from the Upper Rio Negro, where our actors come from, are patrilineal and exogamic, meaning that they should marry members of different people speaking distinct native tongues. This practice results in the multi-linguistic traits characteristic in the region in which inhabitants of the same village frequently speak more than one language. After the arrival of Salesian missionaries, in the early twentieth century, children were removed from their families and taken to boarding schools. This imposition of Western culture obviously brought about disastrous consequences to these peoples. Many of them stopped speaking their mother tongues. In lieu of the original linguistic diversity of these communities, Tukano soon became the language most commonly spoken by the people in the region.  

Language was a key point in our rehearsals. Since I do not speak Tukano, as we built up the scenes, we would alternate between Portuguese and Tukano. While repetition resulted in the actors feeling more at ease with their parts, the changes in language created an instability and a freshness that is often lost in the rehearsal process. When we would fall back into Portuguese, something would always change in the scene. Sometimes dialogues had changed, while in others a change could be seen in the actors’ posture or their movements. We also talked a lot about translations from one language to another, what couldn’t be translated, what was lost or gained in each new sense.

At the end of a day of rehearsal I would write down what we had done in the screenplay in Portuguese. We went as far as to begin translating the screenplay into Tukano, but soon realized that this would stifle the work being done. The screenplay doubled as a guide to the main intentions of each scene. As it was written in Portuguese, the actors had to think what they were going to say in the scene, not unlike that which we do in our daily life, instead of repeating lines they had memorized. On the film set, the actress playing Justino’s daughter-in-law, Jussara Brito, was put in charge of translations, jotting down the variations in the dialogue in each take in Portuguese to better guide us during the editing process. But all the actors actively participated in this translating process in which the text was recreated. 

NOTEBOOK: You have been working on this film for many years but it ended up premiering in a turbulent political moment in Brazil. Could you elaborate on how the film related to recent governmental declarations towards the indigenous people and also the use of land in the Amazon?

DA-RIN: The present government never hid its hatred and prejudice of indigenous peoples. Throughout his campaign Bolsonaro promised that he wouldn’t give to the indigenous people one inch more of land if he was elected, a declaration that goes down the same path of one of his speeches from 1988 when he stated that “it was a pity that the Brazilian cavalry had not been as efficient as the American that exterminated all its Indians.” Discourses revolving around the integration of the indigenous peoples into Brazilian society, one that guided his presidential campaign, conceals his true objective of freeing native reservations for farming and mining activities. On his first day as president, he tried to transfer the National Indian Foundation, responsible for demarcating and regulating the indigenous territory, into the hands of the Ministry of Agriculture, led by right-wing “ruralists.”   

If many native people migrate to the cities today it is also because life on the reservations has become more difficult due to illegal deforestation and the trespassing of miners. But living on reservations continues to be the option chosen by thousands of natives, and the only alternative for isolated groups. With no right to the land, their only hope is to join the great masses of cheap labor in service of the interests of elitist slave-mongers.  This is not a new project. It was in full swing during the military dictatorship and had nefarious consequences. Even today there is no information on just how many native people were murdered by military personnel, but it is estimated that around eight thousands people disappeared during the time. From the moment he took office, Bolsonaro and his allies’ intent has been to paralyze all work being carried out in benefit of the environment and indigenous nations, doing away with services and jeopardizing the legitimacy of professionals in these fields, incapacitating institutions and questioning investments from abroad in preserving Amazonia. There is an on-going attempt to dismantle public welfare policies and the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples put into practice by the new constitution drafted in 1988 after centuries of struggles to this effect.  

But the native people know the meaning of resistance very well. Running parallel to this “de-Indianification” project set forth by the government, a movement for salvaging their identity and struggles for the recognition of their rights is growing strongly. Since the present government has taken office, indigenous peoples have revealed to be extremely combative and barred a series of attempts at regression. In April, for example, over two thousand Indian leaders rallied at the “Free Land Camp” in Brasilia to demand their constitutional rights, be it their right to the land and the maintenance of their traditional way of life, be it to be able to study in universities or run for election. In 2018, for example, we witnessed the first Indian candidate, Sonia Guajajara, running for the vice-presidency.

Although The Fever doesn’t directly touch on these issues, the film tells the story of an indigenous father and daughter living in Brazil today. Vanessa, a young lady who came to live in the city when she was still young, passes her medical school exams and gets one of the vacancies allotted indigenous students. Justino, her father, living now in Manaus for twenty years, finds himself succumbing to solitude and discrimination commonly seen in Brazilian cities. The film touches on the relationship between two people living distinct moments in their life: she, caught up in an urban life as she tries to make use of her right to study medicine, while he realizes that white man’s medicine has no cure for what ails him.

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